The home of Amy Thielen and her husband, Aaron Spangler, is literally in the sticks, and that’s just how they like it. Located on the edge of a state forest some 200 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, it’s a cozy world unto itself.
Thielen is a chef, a James Beard award-winning author and host of “Heartland Table,” a cooking show that ran on the Food Network for two seasons. (She’s no relation to the Vikings wide receiver but she is part of the bacon-famous Thielen Meats of Pierz, Minn., family.) Spangler is an accomplished artist who has pieces at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Institute of Art and in many private collections. Both grew up in nearby Park Rapids, Minn.
The couple have lived on 150 acres of woodland and meandering creek for the past 20 years — at first, only during the warmer months, then full time after son Hank joined them 12 years ago.
The land belonged to Spangler’s family. He grew up hunting and camping there, and returned after graduating from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the late 1990s to build the house he’d been planning since childhood.
He did it by himself, using scrap lumber from nearby Two Inlets Mill, windows salvaged from an old lake cabin, a metal roof from an abandoned trailer and “his own young back,” as Thielen described in her memoir “Give a Girl a Knife.” The finished product had high ceilings, a wood-burning stove and a sleeping loft with a skeleton kitchen tucked beneath; but no electricity, running water, gas, plumbing or neighbors. It was off the grid, and then some.
It was not the obvious landing spot for a budding professional chef who would soon be cooking in the starred Manhattan kitchens of David Bouley and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but Thielen was fresh off a college thesis on early American literature and had a romantic, if not entirely realistic, view of homestead life. Plus, she was smitten with Spangler.
“In my teen years, I knew Aaron peripherally, because he was my friend’s brother. But he was older and into punk music, and I was in my cheerleader phase,” Thielen said. When she ran into him again years later in Minneapolis, she found herself drawn to his unconventional ways.
She moved Up North to be with him and threw herself into learning how to live like her ancestors — gardening from seed, preserving the harvest and cooking without refrigeration or running water.
For years the couple spent summers at the cabin, taming the land and adding modest conveniences (they dug their own sand point well one year, and installed a used solar panel that provided a trickle of power another). They christened their cabin Hazelbrush, after the nut-bearing bushes that cover the property.
Winters were spent in New York City pursuing their respective passions — Thielen working 80-hour weeks in high-pressure kitchens, and Spangler making his art while working odd jobs, including a stint with a contractor in Brooklyn that did historical renovations, which deepened Spangler’s knowledge of construction and carpentry.
Once Hank arrived, the couple realized they needed to be at home, and home was the land of elongated vowels and potluck salads that arrive in plastic-handled ice cream buckets. Their one-room cabin grew as they tacked on bedrooms and added indoor plumbing — giving Thielen a big bathroom with a claw foot tub to soak away the winter chill and a bidet because, why not? (She confessed that it’s mostly used to wash off sandy feet before bed in the summer.)
They also built a warren of small outbuildings — an art studio for Spangler, Thielen’s dacha where she writes her books and articles, and a chicken coop with an upstairs playhouse for Hank.
Doubling their space
The biggest change, though, was this past year when they decided to build a bigger kitchen for Thielen. Her original space under the loft (nicknamed “the bunker”) was efficient, and she filmed two seasons of her show in it, but for someone who cooks every day, sometimes all day, it was a challenge. Plus, her bevy of gear — canning supplies, cookware, serving dishes and her pantry of pickles and preserves — was spilling over into other areas of the house and Spangler’s art studio.
While they were at it, they also added a powder room, mudroom and office, plus a basement with space for a root cellar and Hank’s model train collection, effectively doubling their total square footage. Spangler’s art school friend, designer Chris Hand, helped them draw up the plans.
The clear pine walls and ribbed ceiling in the addition are a lighter and more refined version of the rough logs and knotty pine in the rest of the house. They’ll darken with time, a process the couple appreciate. All of the wood came from Two Inlets Mill. “We’re so fortunate to have a sawmill nearby, and it’s really the heart of the Two Inlets community,” Thielen said.
For the floors, the family chose durable red brick tiles, inspired by those they saw in old train stations, set in a timeless herringbone pattern. The countertops are a soft gray marble, a luxury Thielen allowed herself, along with professional appliances and a sunflower yellow wood-burning oven from Italy that turns out crusty loaves of bread and tender pastries.
An 11-foot island anchors the space and gives her a proper expanse for testing recipes, shooting images of food for her cookbooks and tackling projects like making yards of paper-thin strudel dough, canning the summer’s harvest or hosting big dinners. A half-dozen Danish modern stools that Thielen found online and had reupholstered, provide seating for meals and parties.
Big windows overlooking the garden flank the Wolf range, and open shelving gives her easy access to ingredients and dishes.
“I thought a lot about my choreography, and decided I wanted to take just two steps to reach stuff, and so we decreased the standard spacing between countertops by 3 inches — because I’m a little short,” Thielen said. Drawers beneath the counters reveal their contents with one pull, vs. the open, squat and squint that lower cabinets can require.
Throughout the house are lots and lots of books and a gallery’s worth of artwork from friends. One of Spangler’s latest sculptures, a tripod with an appealing biomorphic shape, stands sentry in the kitchen on a platform that separates the office from the kitchen. The platform is surrounded by bench seating that Spangler built, which Thielen describes as a cross between midcentury modern and Lutheran church. It’s a popular hangout spot during gatherings. The office includes Thielen’s cookbook collection, a table for meetings and informal dining, and refinished chairs from St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn.
The couple have been planning the project for years, and now that it’s finished, they couldn’t be happier.
“When we built this addition, I actually said to a friend, ‘We’ve built our coffin. It’s so perfect now, we’ll never leave it. We’ll die in this house,’ ” Thielen recalled. “But I felt that way about this place even before that. We’ve built so much here, on what was once a patch of brush, we could never sell it.”
Laurie Junker is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.